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Sunday, September 24, 2023

Catching up with sex historian, author Hallie Lieberman

As a high school student, sex historian and author, Hallie Lieberman would not skip class to sleep in or watch TV but to browse local sex stores. 

“I was fascinated by this goal to try to improve human genitals,” Lieberman said. 

Eventually, Lieberman’s curiosity took her to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she received a doctorate degree with a dissertation on sex toy history. Lieberman researched and wrote her first book, “Buzz: The Stimulating History of the Sex Toy", at UW-Madison. She published “Buzz” in 2017, giving the world an in-depth look at how sex toys have made their way into mainstream culture. 

Lieberman began her research studying “passion parties,” or parties where people discreetly sell sex toys, she said. Before starting her graduate program, she even threw some of these parties herself. Due to restrictive laws and societal shame around female sexual pleasure, the parties were not the progressive spaces Lieberman initially hoped to work in. 

“You can't use the word vibrator. You can't use the word sex toy. You can't say dildo, and please don't even talk about the anatomy,” Lieberman said. “I was like, ‘What? This is not sex positive.’”

Lieberman’s research was originally through a sociological lens, but after struggling with the Institutional Review Board for approval, she switched to a historical approach. To learn more about the history of sex toys, Lieberman’s advisor recommended she explore the Wisconsin Historical Society. What she found came as a surprise. 

“I had no clue. I thought all my research would not be on Wisconsin's campus,” Lieberman told The Daily Cardinal. 

In the Wisconsin Historical Society archives, Lieberman discovered research on the Comstock laws in the Ralph Ginzburg collection. The Comstock laws are a set of anti-obscenity laws that banned anything with sexual content, sex toys, contraception, abortion pills and more from being sent through the U.S. Postal Service. 

When reflecting on the impact of “Buzz,” Lieberman said the most “crazy” and “disappointing” part of the Comstock laws is their return to relevance after Roe v. Wade was overturned.

“People think sex toys and abortion are totally different things — no,” she said. 

Now, because abortion is becoming illegal in some states, there is fear the Comstock laws may appear again, making it even more challenging to send abortion pills through the mail, she said. 

“Comstock was tied in with anti-abortion law, and what is the commonality there?” Lieberman asked. “It is about controlling women’s sexual pleasure.”

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Lieberman explained that if people cannot control what is happening in their own bodies with contraceptives and abortion, it is more difficult to enjoy sex, especially penetrative sex.

“How can you have sexual pleasure if you are worried about an unwanted pregnancy?” she said. 

Lieberman pointed out how in the United States, erectile dysfunction treatment is covered by insurance and even advertised in New York City subway stations. 

“It is a patriarchal society where men’s sexuality is prized,” she said. “It's about controlling women's bodies and controlling their sexuality.”  

Lieberman explained there is fear that if women have complete control, they'll have more power and their sexuality may become dominant in society.

In “Buzz,” Lieberman says sexual liberation cannot be achieved solely by overcoming repression. She reiterates this idea now, looking at the world post-Roe. 

“Sex doesn't move from repression to liberation,” Lieberman said. “We always think it does and then we're always shocked when it doesn't."

What’s next

In her next book, Lieberman will continue to look at how women’s sexuality is controlled and how women can take their sexuality back into their own hands, she said. The book, which she has been researching for over two years, is about male sex workers with female clients — known as gigolos. 

Gigolos have been around for far longer than many may suspect. In the early 1900s, women could not go unaccompanied to dance halls, so they would hire a gigolo to go with them, Lieberman said. Sometimes they would solely dance, and sometimes they would sleep together. Women still hire gigolos for a variety of reasons in the present day, she added. 

“The gigolos book is not that different from ‘Buzz’ in the sense that it’s about women’s sexual pleasure,” Lieberman said. “It is about women taking control of their bodies and asking for what they want.”

Lieberman explained that women may not feel safe looking for a hookup by scrolling through Tinder. There are no public reviews for your Tinder matches. However, clients can adequately vet gigolos.

“When you look throughout history, and you see the history of these male sex workers for women, you see the history of women trying to take their sexual pleasure in their own hands and struggling through in a patriarchal society,” Lieberman said. 

Some of these sex workers heavily emphasize consent and comfort; clients can ask for exactly what they want. Making promises most Tinder matches do not, some gigolos even have money-back orgasm guarantees, Lieberman explained.  

In the U.S., where sex work is illegal and society favors male sexual pleasure, it is more difficult for women to find male sex workers, Lieberman said. Additionally, women are more risk-averse and less likely to seek out sex work if it is illegal. Lieberman is open about her desire to destigmatize sex work and make it legal. 

“So, when sex work is illegal, it serves like the patriarchal society we are in,” Lieberman said. “If sex work is legal, it allows women to participate more.” 

In addition to destigmatizing sex work, Lieberman hopes her book will educate more people on the accurate history of gigolos. 

“For so long, the gigolo has been seen as a myth, or a joke, and people don’t realize that history is real, that gigolos are real,” she said.

Lieberman’s upcoming book will reflect the themes of women’s sexual pleasure and control present in “Buzz.” It will also dive deeper into the personal stories of those involved with male sex work. 

“I'm really excited because it's going to be even more narrative driven,” Lieberman said. “I want it to be a really good story.” 

Those interested in learning more from Lieberman are in luck. On Monday, April 17 from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. in the Old Madison Room at Memorial Union, Lieberman is coming to campus to present her talk “Feminist Sex Toy Revolution” with Sex Out Loud, UW-Madison’s peer-to-peer sexual health resource.

You can read more of Lieberman’s work on her website.

Editor's note: Sex Out Loud hosts a podcast under The Daily Cardinal Media Corporation. 

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